MeToo and savarna feminism: Revolutions cannot start with the privileged, feminist future must be equal for all
Mainstream feminism in India aka upper-caste or savarna feminism, as it exists today, is problematic.
Let’s put things clearly on the table, shall we? Mainstream feminism in India aka upper-caste or savarna feminism, as it exists today, is problematic. It has been so for a long time — in many ways, to a lot of us, in theory, and in practice. Those of us who come from marginalised contexts, such as Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi, are no longer buying it.
We need to talk.
1. Savarna Indian feminists display selective outrage for sexual crimes: The data is hard to miss; sexual crimes against Dalit women have been increasing, with close to no respite in sight. Several human rights organisations have published reports of varying depths over the past decade, a few opting to give gruesome details of individual cases. And yet, we have not had a single protest matching the scale of what we witnessed for Nirbhaya. Between 2012 and 2013 only, there were at least 101 reported cases of sexual violence against Dalit women but none of these heinous crimes evoked any form of media or public response.
The most recent phase of the #MeToo movement also illustrates how selective mainstream feminist outrage is towards violence against Dalit women, regardless of the crime’s magnitude or scale. The silence surrounding the beheading of Rajalakshmi, a 13-year old Dalit girl in Thalaivaipatti, Tamilnadu, is a case in point.
Is it possible that at the core of this apathy lies the savarna unwillingness to relate to a Dalit woman’s humanity? That the empathy gap, characterised by caste, class, religion, and everything else, is just too wide to cross, even to register protest?
2. Savarna women are oppressors and accomplices in the oppression of Dalit women: The statement from #Dalitwomenfight during this phase of #MeToo stated that for Dalit women, preparators are not just savarna and Dalit men, but also savarna women. This fact cannot be erased in the name of feminist solidarity. Most of us Dalit women, in rural and urban contexts, have been oppressed by savarna women in many ways, both personally and professionally. We’ve faced microaggressions that are aplenty when engaging with savarna women. We’ve also been killed, sabotaged, harassed, and ill-treated by them. How and why will Dalit women stand in solidarity with their oppressors? What steps are our oppressors taking to convince us otherwise?
3. Most feminist movements and discourses in India are led only by savarna women: Angela Davis, in this awe-inspiring talk, asks, what it would be like to have the most marginalised of women stand in as signs for the category of women. In the Indian context, this would essentially translate to Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi women that have historically been deprived of even the most basic of human rights. On account of our social location determined by caste, class, and gender, we have the lived experience of what it means to be oppressed.
Yet, the women that lead feminist organisations and popular discourses on gender are typically those that come with caste and class privilege. This also extends to the type of causes that they choose to champion or focus on. Any status quo change is only intended to include rather than have DBA women as leaders.
Corporate discourses on gender are also examples of how DBA women are excluded. The thought around power-dressing, ‘breaking the glass ceiling’, leadership styles and work-life balance have all been authored by privileged women in the west, and it is the case in India as well.
4. Savarna women practice feminism by riding on the backs of marginalised women: Ruth B Ginsburg, the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, in her career advice video, talks about her decision to continue pursuing law even after having a daughter. Although this talk is about work-life balance, a popular feminist subject, one must pay attention to her nonchalant mention of engaging a nanny – a practice that is not foreign to working Indian women. In fact, the latter also engages house helps (commonly known as maids) to help with tasks such as laundry, toilet-cleaning, dishwashing, mopping, sweeping, grocery shopping, etc. And in so doing, privileged women keep their work-life balance intact, and climbing career ladders become slightly easier.
But who are the women that get employed as nannies and house helps, if not DBA women? What about their careers? What about their work-life balance? What does work, labour, and growth mean to them? Do they have a provident fund process in place, or an HR department that’d look after them, or a leave schedule?
5. Hindu feminists are not willing to interrogate their religion’s oppressive ideologies: Hinduism is the bedrock of the caste system. Feminists that call themselves intersectional, must be willing to interrogate Hinduism’s oppressive ideologies towards Dalits. This includes questioning festivals, rituals, and beliefs that are steeped in Hinduism.
The thought around how the Hindu religion is inherently feminist or liberal is extremely problematic, in that it completely ignores the fact that Dalits aren’t even considered human by the same religion. How can an ideology that ascribes value to women based on their caste contexts be feminist? How can upper caste Hindu feminists continue to believe in a religion that ostracises their fellow Dalit women, in both theory and practice? How is solidarity possible for Dalit women with such feminists?
6. Marginalised women are treated as study subjects in the name of collaboration: Dalit women frequently encounter savarna feminists that seek information on the ‘Dalit experience’. What does it mean to be a Dalit woman? How are the men in your life being oppressive towards you? What makes life more difficult – your caste or your gender? If an upper caste woman is assaulted by a Dalit man, whom will you support — the Dalit man or the upper-caste woman? Questions that never get asked the other way around.
Savarna feminists that do this are usually those that have research or writing careers. Yet it doesn’t occur to them they could, in fact, focus on their lives instead of Dalit women’s experiences.
Ideally, we Dalit women should write our stories, sans the fear of appropriation. The only reason that’s not already happening is because savarna women are occupying media, publishing and academic spaces, thanks to their social and monetary capital.
7. Savarna feminists engage in performative ally-ship in anti-caste movements: At the heart of solidarity lies action. Anything else done for sake of proving one’s ally-ship amounts to performative behaviour. Savarna feminists often call themselves anti-caste or casteless. Yet, the readiness with which they offer support to savarna women survivors, is practically zero when it comes to DBA women. Where are these lawyers when DBA women are being murdered and raped? Why are there no therapists supporting DBA women who’ve been through the worst?
Paraphrasing from my earlier publication, “To view Dalit women as fascinating subjects for learning and using our extension of friendship as an opportunity to gain access into our narratives, only to other us later; to promise unfaltering ally-ship but buckle at the slightest calling-out; to place your fragility over and above our experiences of oppression; to say that you thoroughly understand our struggles and complexity but gaslight us into believing that we are reactive for almost everything; to have close-knit unions with savarnas who look and live and walk like you but only seek to have superficial interactions with us; to rub shoulders with us at rallies and protests, but celebrate festivals that are inherently oppressive to our communities; to not question your family's privileged position and continue to reap the benefits it gives you – is not solidarity. Importantly, to not stand up for us when we really need you to and fail us when we need help is ally-theatre at its best.”
Mainstream feminism in India has always been and continues to be savarna-centric. And this is so because savarna women have the highest of power and privilege among women. But if feminism, as an ideology, believes in the breaking of power structures, then savarna women that identify as feminists must come to terms with their own privilege proactively. They must seek to break the very structures that ascribe them with caste and class power. Failing to do so confirms our suspicion that savarna feminists use feminism only as a tool for self-preservation.
All of this is to say that the feminist world that we, as women, dream of must be truly equal for all. It is not feminist to work towards a reality that works well only for certain types of women. It has to be a reality that provides all women, but especially DBA women, access to capital, resources, land, education, livelihood, safety, healthcare, and justice. It has to ensure that DBA women stand a chance to live a full life. This includes but is not limited to sex workers, domestic helps, construction labourers, housekeeping staff, vegetable and meat vendors, sanitation workers, and the rest of us.
Gestures that seek to include Dalit women’s voices, by savarna woman, are a start. But savarna women don’t own feminism and inclusion is a weak way forward. During Firstpost’s recent conversation on #MeToo and Inclusion, I mentioned that DBA women have to be at the center of our movements. DBA women’s issues have to determine the feminist future of India. That’s what it means to be intersectional. That’s what it means to be equal.
Revolutions cannot start with the privileged and then spread to those that are not. It has not worked in the past and it won’t in the future either.
Christina Thomas Dhanaraj is a Dalit woman from Chennai, India. She is a volunteer consultant for women and minority-led initiatives focusing on social justice, self-determination, and collaborative models of scholarship. She is currently working in Beijing, China. She tweets @caselchris1
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